French nationals and residents 55 and above will have access to the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines starting Monday, French Health Minister Olivier Véran said over the weekend. France is also prolonging the period between the first and second shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
The AstraZeneca vaccine as well as the one-shot Johnson & Johnson – which arrives in France on Monday, a week ahead of schedule – will be available to those in the 55-and-above age bracket, said Véran.
The shortened timeline comes as France is trying to increase the pace of its vaccination programme, which has been criticised as sluggish, and to gain ground on the spread of the more contagious virus variant first identified in Britain.
At the same time, French officials have defended their policy of reserving the AstraZeneca vaccine for people over 55 with serious health problems after rare but serious blood clot disorders were observed among younger vaccinated patients.
On March 12, France authorised the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine manufactured by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a Belgium-based company owned by Johnson & Johnson. The first delivery of 200,000 doses was to arrive a week ahead of schedule, said Véran.
France's vaccine rollout is hitting its stride after a glacial start, reaching a target of 10 million first doses a week ahead of a mid-April target. The government aims to deliver another 10 million first shots by mid-May.
Extended spacing between shots for mRNA vaccines
Véran also announced increased spacing between the first and second doses of the messenger-RNA vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. Beginning Wednesday, all those who have received the first jab will get a second one after 42 days instead of the current 28 days.
“This will allow us to vaccinate faster without seeing a reduction in protection," explained Véran.
Although France's top health authority advised a six-week period between the two shots in January in order to stretch supplies, the government at the time said there was insufficient data on how well the vaccines performed with a longer interval.
France could safely stretch the interval now because it was vaccinating a younger age group, Véran said.
Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccinations moved forward
Meanwhile, the vaccination campaigns with the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs for the over-60 age group have been moved forward to Friday.
The campaigns initially only targeted the most fragile groups, including those over 75 or anyone with comorbidities.
The programme, however, was delayed due to procurement problems. Nearly 75 percent of nursing home residents nationwide have received two vaccine doses, but that figure falls to 35 percent among 75- to 79-year-olds in major cities and towns.
The announcement came as France is under tightened Covid-19 restrictions with schools closed for two weeks, a ban on travel between regions and a 7pm nationwide curfew.
President Emmanuel Macron, who was forced to impose a third nationwide lockdown amid a spiralling infection rate and an overloaded healthcare system, is counting on an accelerated vaccine rollout to allow a gradual reopening of the country from the middle of next month.
The numbers in intensive care continue to rise and France will almost certainly surpass 100,000 Covid-19 deaths this week. It reported over 43,000 new cases on Saturday and said there were now 5,769 patients receiving critical care.
However, Véran said there were signs that a new lockdown was beginning to slow the infection rate.
"It remains very high," Véran told the JDD. "We can expect that after a period of stabilisation comes the fall. But for that, we must keep going."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)